Skip to main content

Take a SEAT – addressing problem behaviors in children

By March 23, 2016Blog

In my role as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Spurwink, I’m often called in to assist a student’s team to address “problem behaviors”.  These are often behaviors that are negatively impacting learning, health, safety and/or relationships.  I see this as a challenge and a puzzle to help the team solve.

So many times, behavior plans focus on behaviors that we want to decrease or stop:  hitting, biting, stealing, etc.  The most important questions to be answered to achieve this are:

Why is it happening?

What function is this behavior serving?

Why is this student engaging in this behavior in this setting at this time?

Is there another way this need can be met?

The answer starts by taking a SEAT….literally and figuratively.

We first need to agree that all human behavior serves some purpose; no behavior is random or meaningless.  Once we accept that underlying principle, we can then start to solve the puzzle.

All human behavior serves one (or more) of the following 4 SEAT functions:

  1. Sensory Stimulation. The behavior itself is internally satisfying in some way.  It is “self-stimulating” (O’Neill, Horner, Albin, Sprague, Storey, & Newton, 1997), meaning that it gives a person some type of internal pleasure or removes something unpleasant (e.g., pain).  For example, a person might rock back and forth because it is calming.  Another person might rub his knee to sooth the pain after accidentally banging into the table corner.  In both cases, these people do not engage in either behavior to obtain any attention, any items or to escape any demands placed on them.  When you scratch an itch, you’re doing it to relieve the itch that you feel.  The function of scratching is solely to make the itch feel better.
  2. Escape or Avoidance. Not all behaviors occur so a person can “get” something; many behaviors occur because a person wants to get away from something or avoid something (Miltenberger, 2008). For example, a child might show aggressive behavior so that his teachers stop presenting academic tasks. Another child might engage in hitting his head with his hands to avoid having to go outside to play with classmates. OK, admit it…we’ve all done this at one time or another….you might not answer the phone when you see the number on the screen and realize that it’s a telemarketer….you might duck behind a display in the local store so that you can avoid talking to that neighbor who’s been repeatedly asking you to do something that you really don’t want to do.
  3. Attention. A person might behave in a certain way in order to gain some form of social attention or a reaction from other people. For example, a child might engage in a behavior to get other people to look at them, laugh at them, play with them, hug them or even scold them. While it might seem strange that a person would do something to deliberately have someone scold them, this can happen because it may be better for that person to get “bad” attention than no attention at all (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007).  Here is helpful information to talk about with this person.  Comedians perform in order to get a reaction; a baby often cries in order to get attention from adults; a young boy might pull a girl’s pigtails in order to get her to respond.
  4. Tangibles or Activities. Some behaviors occur so a person can obtain a tangible or physical item, or gain access to a desired activity, environment or individual. A child might scream and shout until her parents buy her a new toy (tangible item), or let her watch a movie (activity).  Most of us behave in a certain way in order to receive a tangible every day.  Why do most of us go to work?  If you’re like me, you’re lucky enough to love what you do, but let’s face it, that’s not the sole reason why we do it.  The paycheck is our tangible item that reinforces us, keeps us working.

If you can figure out why a child’s “problem behaviors” are happening, you can then figure out how to change them.  The solution to the puzzle begins simply.


Start by taking a SEAT.


by Elizabeth J. Davis, MA, CCC-SLP, BCBA

Speech-Language Pathologist

Board Certified Behavior Analyst